Samantha Harrow - Grand Canyon Internship Summer 2016

 
The Grand Canyon North Rim has been my home for nearly three months, yet every day I am taken aback by the beauty of my surroundings. The canyon is alive with an immense diversity of plant life and the colors and textures of the earth are unlike any other. Contrasting the high desert and juniper forest environment of the South Rim, the North Rim is a lush Ponderosa forest, with an understory of green shrubs, wildflowers, and a variety of grasses. Each layer of the canyon differs in the plants, animals, and minerals found there, with distinct layers that bring a unique beauty to the landscape. On my first week, I attempted to paint a section of the canyon and realized in full how complex and expansive even a small section of the canyon truly is. Nearly every weekend I go backpacking and explore the vast grandeur of the canyon, yet there is still always more to discover.
 
As a summer intern, I was fortunate to join the select and elite Vegetation Crew of the National Park Service. The North Rim Lodge Restoration project, begun in 2012, is designed to mitigate the effects of construction and decades of pedestrian and maintenance-vehicle traffic on areas surrounding lodge cabins. This continuous traffic reduced these areas to lots of barren, packed earth and prevented the reestablishment of native plant life. The top soil from these areas readily erodes from wind and water, producing runoff that accumulates against historic cabins, accelerating decay of the sill logs and threatening their structural integrity.
 
My team works to re-establish the native plant life through a variety of techniques, including basins, seed strips, vertical mulch, and invasive removal. Basins are wells in the ground a few feet deep and a couple feet in diameter that have been excavated to remove rocks and refilled with nutrient rich, moist soil. A barrier of a few inches of mud is built around them, which, combined with the lowered planting level, allows water to collect around the plantings to maintain health and accelerate growth. Planted seed strips help to re-establish the natural seed beds that accumulate in natural environments. The seeds for these we collect ourselves, travelling across our area of the North Rim as each plant fruits to create a seed mix of over 60 native species. Due to contractual obligations and our goal to restore a natural setting, fencing is strictly prohibited. Vertical mulch, our alternative “fencing”, is the strategic placement of aesthetically pleasing and natural logs, rocks, and thorny shrubs to discourage traffic while maintaining a natural composition.
 
The revegetation of these areas with native plant species achieves several desirable results: erosion reduction, increased water infiltration into the soil, re-establishment of habitat and resources for native wildlife, and improved aesthetics for visitors. Each day I am greeted by guests to the Rim who comment on the loveliness of our plantings and thank my team for our work, and I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. I have a wonderful and unique opportunity to spread knowledge of our project, the environment, and the native plant life to people from across the country every day through my interactions with visitors. Though I grew up in the great metropolis of Phoenix, I always felt most at home in the forest of the Mogollon Rim during summer camping trips. To be working in restoration of this environment is the most fulfilling work I could imagine. Equipped with my degree in Chemistry from the UofA, I will begin my PhD work this fall, studying the chemical ecology of plants at UW-Madison. It is my sincere hope that my future research will help in the understanding, restoration, and conservation of our natural environments, such as our stunning Grand Canyon. I am so grateful to be involved in this line of work and to the opportunities and people who guided me here, for, in the words of Edward Abbey: nature is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.